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An Interview with Norbert Cartagena

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We are very fortunate that the technical writer, editor and internet specialist Norbert Cartagena has agreed to an exclusive interview with Norbert, or "Gnorb" as he signs himself on the internet, was not only until recently the Editor-in-Chief of Developer Shed Inc., but is also a self-confessed fan of science fiction.

S: Hi Gnorb, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview.

G: Happy to do it.

S: You'll have to bear with me, because I'm new to this, so I'm not (yet) a David Letterman or Michael Parkinson. Also, unlike a chat show interview, we're not sitting in the same room, but are separated by several thousand miles, so forgive me if I fail to read your body language!

G: That being the case, you can believe me when I say that I'm a six-foot, eight inch specimen of pure Adonis-like manhood. And that I have some land on the Moon I'd like to sell you.

S: *laughs* As a start, I'd like to ask you about your most recent work and achievements, and then perhaps later we can talk more about your background and what drove you to become a writer, editor and internet specialist. So as I already mentioned, you were Editor-in-Chief of Developer Shed.

G: Yep.

S: Correct me if I'm wrong, Gnorb, but for those who are not familiar with it, Developer Shed is a network of technology-related websites for publishing articles, opinions and code samples, each of which focuses on one particular aspect of technology. So, for example, there's a site that focuses on web design, one that focuses on scripting, one for more traditional software development, one for hardware, and so on. Is that a fair summary?

G: Yep.

S: OK, so could you give a very brief summary of your role at Developer Shed? In other words, what were your responsibilities and what did you actually do on a day-to-day basis?

G: Basically, my job was to keep all the content rolling on the network, which included a number of websites, a PDF magazine, and a weekly newsletter, plus the occasional press release. To that end, I was responsible for orchestrating how all content would be produced, including answering all audience queries, putting together a team of outside writers, hiring and training new in-house editors, coordinating with the graphics designer, and other relevant departments in order to ensure that content was available and accurate at time of publication.

S: Wow, I bet that kept you busy!
Can you tell me a bit more about your outside writers? I find it remarkable that there is a whole bunch of people spread around the world who are contributing articles.

G: Absolutely. Actually, that was one of the big perks of the job. Now, I have friends in places I can't point out on a map. (Figuratively speaking.)

S: Why would they want to do that, and how did you coordinate their efforts?

G: There are only two reasons people like to write, at least technical articles: (1) monetary compensation, (2) recognition from peers. My management style is pretty loose. People have brains, and when they're used properly - well, two brains are better than one. Because we were dealing with a number of freelancers writing in their spare time, I had to be a bit flexible with what people could and could not do, subject- and time-wise. And it worked out quite well. The writers would keep an eye to the reactions they got from the audience and I would guide the writers into areas we felt we needed more coverage in. The only time this loose-handed approach didn't work was when we had time sensitive items, for which I would assign particular topics with specific deadlines, usually magazine articles.

One of the biggest problems I faced when putting everything together was the number of email messages I was getting. I was getting literally hundreds of messages per day, not including spam. New authors, stories from authors, new instructions to pass along? It would've been fine, had the editorial department not been understaffed, but at that time I was doing the job of two people, and things were getting lost. Lots of things. Like articles. This, of course, wasn't something I could allow. At first I wanted to start an AIM or IRC channel in order to communicate with the authors. But this didn't sit too well with the management, since they didn't consider it "organized", effective though it might have been.

(As a side note to any editors and would be managers, communication with your team is vital. Respect them. They have brains, and likely good ones. You're not "above" anyone. If you want anyone below you, go run around in a grave yard. In contrast, remember that you are among equals. There is not a person on earth you can't learn from. Remember that, too. Prima Donnas don't last too long as managers, at least not without a lot of turnover.)

In light of that, I figured that using the forums, already a staple with the readers, I could accomplish the same thing as I could with IRC, with a few added advantages, including a permanent log of conversations and ideas, a permanent repository for all articles (in case of catastrophic failure), a place where communication could be swift, but not constrained either temporally or to one time zone (since we had writers from all over the world), and more importantly, a place where we could do peer reviews. I got the idea from watching how the writers on Dev Hardware ensured the best quality of work. Basically, it was the open source model applied to writing.

In retrospect, it was probably the best move I made as an editor. Given the time constraints I had, there was no way I could have fact-checked everything. And since writers not only like for their articles to be accurate, but for the publications their articles are featured in to be respected, I figured the authors would take a bit of personal ownership in the content of the site. And they did, for their part. That helped the quality of articles not only keep a certain level, but also grow. Unfortunately, this only extended to the technical portion of the articles. The grammatical aspects were entirely my terrain.

(Ok, the following is a bit of a rant. You can ignore it if you want: The grammatical portion sometimes made for a daunting task, since a good number of the authors were not native English speakers. I eventually got some help with when the owner finally decided to bring in another editor. "Thank God, Almighty!" I remember yelling. By that time, I was so stressed and overworked that I considered developing a drinking habit as a form of relaxation. I don't drink, mind you, but by then it seemed like a good idea. I guess that's why most chief editors I know are chain-smokers. Unfortunately, it was about this time that we increased content production, began publication of Plug In Magazine, and as consequence, had to bring in more writers and therefore increase the management load. Thank God for the writers' forum. Were it not for that, there would have been no way for us to handle the type of growth that we experienced.)

S: Yes, I heard about that growth. I understand that while you were editor the network exposure increased from 2.3 million to over 13 million unique visitors per month. That's very impressive! How did you do it?

G: A number of techniques were used here: Word of mouth, grass-roots marketing, business partnerships, search engine optimization (SEO). It wasn't something I can take sole credit for, but the editorial department carried its weight quite well, increasing the content from three articles per week on three websites to 84 articles per month on seven properties, not counting a newsletter. (As anyone who does SEO knows, there are both contextual and technical aspects to SEO.)

S: So what do you think is the single best method for increasing network exposure?

G: That depends on what you're looking to do. Are you looking for highly qualified traffic, or are you looking for eyeballs, regardless of their qualifications. Sales sites will normally ask for the former, since they make their money on sales, and if someone's not looking for your product, they ain't buying. Content sites, on the other hand, will look for the latter, since they normally get paid for ad clicks and page views. In both instances, search engine optimization is a necessary component. But strategic business partnerships also play into that.

Here's a good example: when the network was looking to increase its Google PageRank (PR) and search engine rankings, we put together a number of link partnerships with sites of a higher PR. Ever see all those "sponsored by" links at the bottom of Web pages? Those links are either traded or bought for the sake of PR and search engine ranking. (Don't believe for a second that your favourite technical site is at all interested in selling life insurance and women's shoes.) Because of those partnerships, the pages moved from a PR of 7 to a PR of 8, which is pretty high. When that happens, you can expect your placement in the search engines to go up for your key terms. An increased level of publication, such as a daily publication schedule, is also important because it tells the search engines - and your readers - that your site is alive and kicking.

S: Now, going back a few years, you were a student of music composition at the University of South Florida. I find that surprising. How does a student of music come to be an editor and an internet specialist? On the face of it, they sound so different - are they really as different as they sound?

G: Ok, I'll give you the Cliff's Notes version of this story. I first took a deep interest in computers when I started college. Before then (1997) my idea of a computer was a 286 you could run "WP52" on (WordPerfect 5.2). I hadn't even seen the Internet. When I got to college, I started teaching myself HTML, and eventually XML and JavaScript. At the time, I was also working at the local Barnes and Nobles and joined a local Linux Users Group. One time, I got into an argument with another LUG member on the group's mailing list (Ed Centanni, an incredible programmer). It was regarding user interfaces, I believe. After the argument ended, Ed emailed me off-list and said that he was working for a start up, and they were looking for an UI designer and writer. Although I didn't know much about programming, learning wasn't something I was averse to, so I said "why not." After an interview, I got hired and my career as a tech writer was launched. (I still have a copy of my first cheque: $408.)

It should be noted that one of the reasons I got the job was because I was a musician. I didn't know it at the time, but computer companies would at that time look for musicians to train as programmers since the manner of thinking between the two is so similar. In fact, the best programmers I've met are all musicians. Ed, in fact, was not just an incredible programmer, he was also a shockingly good saxophone player.

From there, I spent most of my time in the open source and Linux world. After working with a couple of start ups (and starting a music company of my own), I started working for what's now known as the Open Source Technology Group (OSTG), scouring the Internet for technical info. (You can still see some of the articles I put there if you go to's Linux documentation database.) OSTG's editor-in-chief, Robin "roblimo" Miller decided to give me a chance to write for their sites, and that's how I got started in Web writing.

S: You were also the founder and manager of a wedding string quartet. Did you have a string quartet at your wedding?

G: *laughs* No, sadly, I didn't. Actually, the music at my wedding was performed by one of my violin students and her mom, a piano instructor. That was during the ceremony. The MC at the reception was a friend of mine who had been a DJ in the past. I did, however, choose all the music for the wedding, and set up the entire program, including a few non-traditional bits, like playing the theme to a video game (Final Fantasy VIII) for the ceremony, and a combination of Country/Western, Pop, J-Pop, Hindi, and Spanish music at the reception. (For example, the music playing when we walked into the reception hall was Chale Chalo from Lagaan, and the mother/groom dance was Lee Ann Womack's I Hope You Dance.)

S: I see from your website that you're a fan of gadgets. What's your favourite gadget?

G: Does a pillow count as a gadget? *laughs* I'm not sure if it's been invented yet, although the Great Uncloggable Toilet is a serious contender. At the moment, I'd have to say that my iRiver H320 is my favourite gadget.

S: Do you have an iPod, and how do you think the mp3 downloading revolution will affect us as consumers and the music industry in the longer term?

G: Ah, now you get to the serious stuff. To the first question, the answer's no. I don't own an iPod. I'm quite happy with the flexibility offered to me by my H320. In regards to the second question ? well, there's a lot more to that than just MP3s.

I'm not sure most people truly realize the potency of this downloading revolution. Not just in music, but in all of media. (You'll have to pardon me if this answer looks like its all over the place, but with things like blogging and podcasting the "downloading revolution" is more than just an MP3 thing.) Even the rise in popularity of television shows syndicated through DVD sales indicates a growing trend in the mass media industry, one where broadcasting is essentially replaced by narrowcasting.

As an example, let's take a look at the big 3 here in the U.S.: ABC, NBC and CBS. These networks used to totally rule the airwaves. Since the introduction of cable and satellite television their market share's been going down. Not very fast, but fast enough that these megalithic entities have started to feel the effects of cable television, which is generally more geared toward specific niches, like "The History Channel", "The Cartoon Network", "Comedy Network", and one of my favourites, "The Sci-Fi Channel". Okay, so CBS isn't losing much ground to the Sci-Fi channel, but they are losing where it hurts them the most: News. Cable-only, all-the-time news channels like CNN and Fox News have increased their dominance over the news giants of the past, so much so that most people no longer get the majority of their news from the older establishments, and instead rely more heavily on these cable news networks. Again, it's all about narrow casting here.

(I could go on further on this point, but frankly Hugh Hewitt makes a great - although heavily biased - point on this in his book Blog.) In order to understand this whole "MP3" thing, I think we should take a look at the overall picture. But here's a synopsis: broadcasting is out. Narrowcasting is in, at least in first world countries. And I'm not talking about just in TV. XM and Syrius will do to radio what DirectTV is doing to broadcast television. And in the midst of all that will be blogs and - more importantly, and relevant to this conversation - podcasts.

We'll start with the big music companies like Virgin Records and Sony Music. Now, the effect of MP3s and file sharing are already well known when it comes to those companies. When it comes to illegal downloading, it means loss of sales. Now, I know I'm going to get a ton of people screaming "liar, liar, pants on fire!" But anyone arguing this point should note the differences between the US market, in which only about 10% of people are downloading music, and the South Korean market, where up to 40% of people are downloading music. In South Korea, music stores are closing down faster than anywhere on the planet because of illegal downloading. When it comes to legal downloading, with services such as Apple's iTunes, it means a growth in profits. But what does it mean culturally? Simply put, it means that people won't have to spend $15 on a CD when all they really want are the three songs they've heard all their friends talk about. They'll also be more likely to diversify their listening choices. Instead of spending $15 on one artist's music, they'll spend $12 for three songs by four artists, and then go to Starbucks and spend the other $3 on a mocha Frap.

The real loser in this game will likely be the average radio station. Think about it, how often do you listen to the radio when you're at home? If you're like me, likely the answer's never. (Unless you're listening to the local news station, and even then it's likely not often.) You likely listen when you're in your car. Even then, there's a good chance that you now listen more a CD of all your favourite songs you burned on your computer, using the MP3s of those songs as sources, than you do your car radio. Why? Because you're interested in what you're interested in. Period. So what if Linkin Park has a new CD out? If you only like tracks 3, 7, and 12, why would you waste your money or time on the other 9 tracks?

Furthermore, with services like XM satellite radio, people listening during radio's cash cow hours will slowly-but-surely start tuning into whatever entertainment makes the time pass faster. (Think "Soma" from Brave New World.) Sure, they'll still look for the traffic announcements to and from work, and maybe even stick around for the weather report, but they won't stick around for the commercials, at least if they have an advertisement-free option.

On top of all this (and for the sake of brevity, I'll stop here) there's the new phenomena of "podcasting", which is basically the creation of a radio show, using MP3 creation technology, meant to be carried around by people in their MP3 players. Talk about narrowcasting! I've seen podcasts out there which ranged from the interesting to the bizarre. (How's listening to a really long game of Dungeons and Dragons for entertainment grab you. Sure, it's one thing when you're there, but when you're just listening to someone else's game? Now THAT is narrowcasting to the extreme.) And to be sure, this type of individualistic entertainment is where we're moving to.

Blogs, Podcasts, TiVO? heck, even (to a certain extent) the explosion in popularity of open source software will be affected by this MP3 downloading phenomenon. What started as a "cool idea" about sharing music online with your friends has mutated into the paradigm on which to build new business models and revolutionize the entertainment industry as we know it. (If this be a revolution, then by God, let us make the best of it!)

On a related note, if I were one of the big TV stations, I'd start offering my TV shows for download, for a small fee. (Say, $5 an episode, downloadable as an MPG.) Here's an example: I love watching Futurama. It's my favourite show, and Billy West has become my idle (which is beside the point). But if I only really like the first 10 episodes in season three, why should I be forced to buy the other five? What if I don?t care for the commentaries or any of the extras? On-demand TV downloads would offer that. Instead of putting a $45 price barrier on TV shows, stations could sell you a download (a la iTunes) for $5, or whatever you want to charge for bandwidth. With DVD burners now becoming more commonplace, consumers could then make their own television show mixes, much like they now create audio CD mixes to take on car trips. On top of that, it would allow people to view TV shows from other countries. I'm sure this would be a boon to industries which now suffer massively from downloaded TV shows and movies, such as the anime industry.

S: I very much enjoyed reading your article "Real-Life Sci-Fi", where you looked back at technological predictions that people had made in the past and tracked the progress that has been made on them. For example, you recall predictions of flying cars, nanobots and (my personal favourite) cloaks of invisibility. Like most other people, I thought cloaks of invisibility were an item of pure science fiction until I read your article and discovered the progress being made at the University of Tokyo. Having written that article, what do you think will be the most significant technological change in the next ten years?

G: That's really hard to say. With the speed of information flow the way it is today, the most revolutionary idea of the next decade might not exist for another 8 years. Given what I know today, I feel that the most significant technological change will probably involve M-theory. I don't know what more to say about that, however, although I'm sure quantum computing will have something to do with it. Cybernetics is also a big one in my book. I don't think we'll be playing Borg any time soon, but I can see the day where people will get a small implant in their arm or hand that will contain not only their medical and financial information, but also the keys to their house and their car, and which will allow parents to keep track of their children. I can see the day when fingernails might be replaced with more useful items, like a small bioelectricity powered watch, for example. But how far can - and should - we take this? How far before we're no longer human? Bill Joy's paper Why the Future Doesn't Need Us talks marvellously well about the ups and downs of this type of advancement. Sadly, so does the infamous Unabomber Manifesto, which discusses many of the sociological changes that would occur should technologies like these really take hold. (And as a Christian, after reading the book of Revelation, I watch stuff like this closely and with a great deal of caution. Then again, if you want to know when the world's going to end, just ask an American preacher. They'll be glad to tell you.)

S: To finish off, I'd like to return to your own personal future. Now that you have left Developer Shed, can you make a prediction as the direction of your own life and career? Where do you go from here?

G: *Laughs* You just asked the million dollar question. To be honest, I'm not totally sure, at least insofar as the writing is concerned. I plan to keep writing, and although I'll still keep up with technology, I'm working to expand my writing capabilities. Technology is fun, but the world is full of so much incredible beauty that to focus solely on something man made is akin to worshipping a statue, instead of the god it represents.

In other aspects of my life, my faith has taken first place - as it should be. I plan to slow down a bit, and take some time to enjoy the world around me. (And learn about photography in the process!) Working can be fun, but what good does it do you to work and "succeed" if you lose your soul in the process? I love learning, which is why I plan to take more time for myself. Besides, an unexamined life is a life not worth living.

Finally, I plan to be wealthy. Why? Because I believe chasing a dollar is a waste of time, plain and simple. I'd rather spend my time making the world a better place, researching, growing, discovering, helping people, teaching, and becoming the person I know I can be, instead of wasting my time being at the whim of some self-righteous jackass of a boss. (If you have employees, sorry but this is what your employees likely think of you.) In other words, I'd rather spend my time making the community around me and the world a better and more beautiful place because I lived in it. Making the world better is something anyone would be hard-pressed to do if they have to spend 40+ hours a week wondering how next month's rent and electricity bill will be paid. Being wealthy takes care of that. (Unless you're a jerk who uses money to bully people. Then you can forget getting time for anything other than living under a stack of legal papers. For more information on being wealthy and finding inner peace, please see The Book of Proverbs.) I always hear people say "oh, if I had a million dollars, I would give half to this cause and that cause," but when they're $8,000 in credit card debt, it's kind of hard to help anyone.

But yeah, that's pretty much what I plan to do. I think I plan to work on learning CSS and BASH scripting, too. And cooking Indian and Japanese food. But those are minor things.

S: Well, CSS and BASH scripting might be minor things, but Japanese and Indian food are pretty big in my book! *laughs* (Actually, there's a good book I can recommend you for Indian cooking.) Seriously though, I wish you well with your plans and I look forward to reading more of your entertaining musings on technology and the philosophy of life. We've covered a lot of ground here and it's been a truly fascinating discussion. I'd like to thank you again for giving your time to this interview.

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Simon White